In the spring of 1934, Walter Benjamin drafted a letter from exile to his long-suffering friend in Palestine, Gershom Scholem. A pioneering scholar of Jewish mysticism, Scholem first met Benjamin when they were both were university students in Berlin; later Scholem, a secular Zionist, emigrated to Jerusalem, far from the darkening clouds over western Europe. Though they met only rarely in person afterward—Benjamin deferred or rejected his invitations to visit the holy land—Scholem remained one of Benjamin’s closest friends, and their correspondence persisted throughout Benjamin’s life even as the prickly and exacting writer abandoned many of his former acquaintances upon going into exile in 1933. In the letter draft in question, Benjamin was writing from a familiar position: defending his intellectual output against Scholem’s persistent desire that he align his work with some school of thought—ideally, one that might provide him with financial and physical refuge through a university position in Jerusalem. But Benjamin would not concede: “I have always written according to my convictions—with perhaps a few minor exceptions—but I have never made the attempt to express the contradictory and mobile whole that my convictions represent in their multiplicity, except in very extraordinary cases and then never other than orally.”
The “contradictory and mobile whole” that comprises Benjamin’s life and work has not been easy for others to accept. Scholem’s frustration was characteristic both of the academics who dismissed Benjamin’s ideas during his lifetime and of all his most ardent supporters, as well, including Scholem, Theodor Adorno, Bertolt Brecht, and Ernst Bloch. Just as characteristic was Benjamin’s stubborn refusal to clarify his “convictions” or compromise his work for professional ends. His refusal to make his ideas acceptable to the intellectual world’s elder gatekeepers cost him a professorship and more than a few opportunities for publication.
In their defense, Benjamin’s writing, which by 1934 had adopted the form of imagistic and thetic collage that would characterize all his late essays, was like nothing that had come before and—except in pale imitation—like nothing since. Even today, his work can challenge and unsettle. His mature writing combined the frenetic structures of film montage, the erudition of the academy, the brio of Nietzsche, the acid of Kraus, and a unique dialectical materialism owing as much to mysticism as to Marx. His range of subjects was no less unprecedented: in addition to epochal pieces on Kafka, Baudelaire, and Goethe, he wrote treatises on radio and film (including his famous “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”); arguments concerning the philosophy of language; dreamy accounts of his childhood; experimental travelogues and “city portraits”; radio plays; fairy tales; and essays on his experience with everything from children’s books to gambling, pornography, and drugs. He was among the first writers to take “popular culture” seriously as an object of study. At the same time, he cultivated his role as a curator, rather than interpreter. (“I needn’t say anything,” he wrote in his Arcades Project. “Merely show.”)
What the writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal said of Benjamin’s essay on Goethe still rings true: it was, and is, “absolutely incomparable.” Hannah Arendt pointed out that Hofmannsthal’s assessment was precisely the rub; the essay was literally incomparable. “The trouble with everything Benjamin wrote was that it always turned out to be sui generis.” As a result, he was denied lasting professional success. Posthumous fame, she concluded, seems to be the best we can do for the “unclassifiable ones” whose work neither fits an existing order nor defines a new one.
The Holy Grail for Benjamin’s friends and critics—a total accounting of his variegated philosophy—never appeared during his lifetime, but it has proved irresistible to the industry of scholars that has emerged since the rediscovery of his work in the 1960s. Admittedly, much of this scholarship disappoints. Too often, modern academics approach Benjamin as a Rorschach test, gazing at the text and thereby gauging their own predilections toward Marxism, poststructuralism, sociology, Jewish mysticism, urban theory, or modern-day Dadaism. No thinker in modern history is so overdetermined by the pet theories and partial readings of others. And few writers are more diminished in the secondary literature, which invariably suffocates the wit and slyness of the original. ((Opening the posthumous collection Reflections at random, I find right away an example of both qualities in a short passage from “Moscow,” discussing the bourgeois phenomenon of jazz music among the Russian proletariat: “Class rule has adopted symbols that serve to characterize the opposing class. And of them jazz is perhaps the most popular. That people also enjoy listening to it in Russia is not surprising. But dancing to it is forbidden. It is kept behind glass, as it were, like a brightly colored, poisonous reptile, and so appears as an attraction in revues.”)) For these scholars, what Benjamin wrote is less important than what he stood for: an avant-garde realism with endlessly branching ramifications throughout the humanities. His oeuvre is one of the great empty signifiers of twentieth-century thought. If it did not exist, critics would have to invent it.
“Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life,” an ambitious new biography by two veteran Benjamin scholars (Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings), will go down as this generation’s definitive attempt to express the “contradictory and mobile whole” of that writer whose life feels conjured out of the very spirit of the previous century. In part, this is a testament to its authors’ modesty. Though Eiland and Jennings arrange Benjamin’s life and work into not just chronological but a rough evolutionary order, they never argue that this evolution gestures toward any particular region of the postwar intellectual landscape. Their lengthy exegeses of his major essays eschew dogma in favor of close reading and heavy quotation. In contradistinction to so much academic writing on Benjamin, the authors bend over backward to absolve themselves of the responsibility of classification. Though the phrase today connotes approval, rather than admonishment, Eiland and Jennings are in agreement with Scholem, Arendt, and Benjamin’s befuddled contemporaneous critics when they affirm that their subject defies categorization.
Actually, to be precise, the authors don’t quite go that far. Instead, they write that Benjamin’s writings defy “simple generic categorization.” It is a prudent concession to what any biographer of Benjamin must recognize as the infinitely fractal powers of the critic. For Benjamin did more than write “unclassifiable” criticism. His essays were themselves feats of classification, reorganizing the concepts and historical lineages of the books, writers, and cultural objects that caught his eye. His resilient status as an unclassifiable writer is thus a gentle irony; to classify him would require a critical taxonomist of Benjamin’s own brilliance.
For that’s how I would classify him: as both a literary taxonomist, like his contemporary Erich Auerbach, and a cultural taxonomist along the lines of that other theorist of the twentieth century, Michel Foucault. Yet compared even with these thinkers, Benjamin’s critical aperture was uncommonly large. It encompassed what Eiland and Jennings describe as “an admixture of a radical leftist politics, a syncretistic theological concern that drew freely upon theologoumena from Judaism and Christianity, a deep knowledge of the German philosophical tradition, and a cultural theory, adequate to the diversity of its objects under the fast-changing conditions of modernity.” Yet even as he prefigured the interdisciplinary fashions of contemporary academia, Benjamin was impatient with ivory tower turgidity and pettiness; after he failed to secure a coveted university position in Frankfurt, he described academic enterprise as “something inconsequential to me.” Academics worked within categories; at best, they combined or dissolved them. Benjamin wanted to redraw the whole map.
I hope it is not too cloyingly reflexive to call Benjamin the first great taxonomist of the modern era, and at the same time suggest that taxonomy ought to be considered its own category of literature—a long-forgotten one, like storytelling or soothsaying. (Indeed, Goethe placed Carl Linnaeus in the highest tier of his esteem, alongside just two others: Shakespeare and Spinoza.) By encircling so many objects within his totalizing critical vision, Benjamin was the Linnaeus of modern culture, descrying the major domains of critical attention for the next hundred years from pop art to postmodern architecture. He was among the first to realize that criticism in its purest form—beyond generic limitations—is neither evaluation nor explication, but classification and nomenclature.
He saw, too, how ancient this notion was. Before philosophy, before writing, even before poetry in the Judeo-Christian history of the world, there is a moment of elemental ur-taxonomy: the naming of the beasts. It is man’s first act, when, out of the ground of a new Earth, “the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.” ((Genesis 2:19. The first of many comic set pieces in the Holy Scriptures. It is often overlooked how the God of the second creation story of Genesis resembles not so much an omnipotent deity as a kind of fumbling Geppetto. “It is not good that the man should be alone,” He muses, presumably to himself, after placing Adam in Eden. “I will make him a helper as his partner.” Only after His first, feckless attempt to supply said partner from among the world’s hawks, lizards, and elephants does God finally create Eve to Adam’s vocal approval. (The form of Adam’s assent—“This at last is bone of my bones…”—is the Bible’s first diegetic poem.) Before that happens, though, God listens to Adam as the first human reveals the names he has chosen for God’s lesser creations. It is the first critic, speaking to the first inarticulate artist.))
Walter Benjamin was born in 1892 to an assimilated Jewish family. He spent his earliest years exploring their large, elegant apartment just south of Berlin’s Tiergarten. His father, Emil, was an art and antiques auctioneer from Cologne who, by the time of Benjamin’s birth, was using his accumulated wealth to invest in assorted money-making projects, such as medical supplies, wine distribution, and the construction of a local skating rink—the Ice Palace—that doubled as a nightclub where young Benjamin had an early erotic experience. Emil’s professional bricolage and entrepreneurial spirit must have fascinated the family’s oldest child, whose interest in the hidden forces that shaped a city’s marketplaces would only intensify in adulthood.
Benjamin described his early years in Berlin Childhood around 1900, one of the many book-length projects to remain unpublished during his lifetime. Despite its relative obscurity, it remains a minor Proustian masterpiece, wherein the child’s lonely world of objects is lovingly chronicled, culminating in a tyke-sized version of the Arcades Project’s urban materialist study. In one of the book’s more revealing moments, Benjamin explained how he would play with the rolled-up socks that filled his family wardrobe. When he encountered one of these socks, he recalled, “nothing surpassed the pleasure of thrusting my hand as deeply as possible into its interior. I did not do this for the sake of the pocket’s warmth. It was ‘the little present’ rolled up inside that I always held in my hand and that drew me into the depths.” Benjamin would pull on the piece of fabric that was his little present, “teas[ing] it out of its woolen pocket,” simultaneously opening the gift and causing it to vanish. “I could not repeat the experiment on this phenomenon often enough,” he wrote. “It taught me that form and content, veil and what is veiled, are the same. It led me to draw truth from works of literature as warily as the child’s hand retrieves the sock from ‘the pocket.’” ((Probably every child has experienced this phenomenon, or one resembling it. Mine consisted of two medicine-cabinet mirrors that faced each other across the expanse of a small, well-lighted bathroom in my childhood home. I loved to stand directly between the mirrors in such a way that a bright, infinite hallway surrounded me on either side. Yet no matter how I contorted myself, the darkened doorways at the hallway’s opposite ends were always concealed by my head—the same head, I came to realize, that was both the hallway’s sole witness and its occasion for being.))
Of course, this moment of highchair hermeneutics should not be taken literally. Socks do not teach toddlers lessons in literary analysis. But like much of his writings on childhood, the moment demonstrates how material objects function as the source of all our supposedly abstract knowledge, and how, for Benjamin, much of this knowledge is acutely available to the young child, whose world is that of a still solitary Adam. This is the world of secret, material affinities and the potency of myth, a world that we forget as we age. ((Eiland and Jennings: “Animating all of Benjamin’s thought is the conviction that the seemingly most obvious things—who we are, the nature of the physical environment in which we move, the character of our historical moment—are in essence concealed from us.”))
Benjamin excelled in university and was briefly a leader in the German Youth Movement before breaking with them over his disapproval of the First World War. After stints avoiding conscription in Switzerland and Paris, he returned to Germany, both to pursue in Frankfurt the traditional university position he felt was his destiny, and to develop in Berlin’s cafés and salons a new philosophy of criticism, which, although he never articulated it fully in any one place, seems to have directed most of his efforts over the next decade. Early essays like “Metaphysics of Youth” and “Goethe’s Elective Affinities” took the form of confident, if gnomic, arguments about the nature not just of literature but of time and language as these related to the critic’s project. Other features were outlined later in “The Task of the Translator” and his book-length study of the German Trauerspiel. With all these projects, Benjamin hoped to define a new, modern criticism as a practice distinct from mere literary commentary. “If, to use a simile,” he wrote, “one views the growing work as the flaming pyre, then the commentator stands before it like the chemist, the critic like the alchemist.” Literary tradition, canon, and the progress of epochs and empires that occupied the commentator’s work did not interest him; these features of the known world were too conventionally valued. What Benjamin desired was a criticism that achieved the childlike power of Adam, while remaining rooted in the objects of the world—in balled-up socks and city streets, in the material history of the previous century.
Like his university classmate Heidegger, Benjamin believed that the primary unit of language was neither the speech act nor the structure of signification. Rather, his linguistic atom was something very close to a name: an event whose magical immediacy of intelligibility creates the world as we know it. For Benjamin, language was a fundamental “medium” in which objects encountered one another “in their essences, in their most transient and delicate substances, even in their aromas.” These essences in their fullness were inaccessible to the human mind except insofar as they could be partially communicated by the object’s name. “If the lamp and the mountain and the fox did not communicate themselves to man, how could he name them?” Benjamin asked, adding that “only through the linguistic being of things” could man rise out of himself toward knowledge of the world.
These observations coalesced for Benjamin in “aura,” an unstable but pervasive concept in his writings that allowed him to connect his philosophical interests in language to his political and material interests in the city and its objects. For Benjamin, an “aura” was the status of an object apart from its worth or use value or even its observable qualities, and which was based instead on its “figural distance” from the beholder. Name and aura were profoundly intertwined; both revealed as well as obscured, and neither was open to conventional, subjective interpretation. ((Benjamin was not often categorical about the proper attention of philosophers, but he nevertheless spoke characteristically when he said “a philosophy that does not include the possibility of soothsaying from coffee grounds and cannot explicate it cannot be a true philosophy.” He recognized that the fortuneteller, like the gambler and the collector, maintained an auratic relationship to his or her prized objects that could not be discounted by the critic, not despite but precisely because this relationship seemed to lack conventional value. Though he enjoyed an extended flirtation with Marxism, Benjamin was especially interested in those features of cultural objects that seemed to slip between the historical cracks of dialectical materialism.))
While he was developing these concepts in the 1920s, Benjamin was living on the brink of insolvency, dependent on his wife Dora or, more problematically, his father, for financial support. ((Dora was a partner in Benjamin’s work, too, though this aspect of her support has gone largely unacknowledged. Even in “A Critical Life,” this role is scarcely mentioned (perhaps for lack of evidence) except in a few instances, such as when they note that, even after their marriage lost its intimacy, Benjamin “continued to be quite unwilling to move forward in any area unless he and Dora were in intellectual agreement.”)) He wanted to become one of Germany’s preeminent literary critics and could not imagine taking a middle-class job that would interfere with his research, although this kept relations with his family strained. However, by the late ’20s he had found a circle of supporters and was being published widely in newspapers and journals. He also became a staple of German radio, where he wrote and delivered more than eighty educational and literary programs between 1929 and 1932. Hitler’s ascendancy ended this streak of successes. “A Critical Life” traces these personal struggles and literary trials, placing them in the context of his domineering and sometimes selfish personality. In particular, he suffered from a congenital flightiness that he masked as wanderlust. He would often abandon his wife and son to visit Capri, Paris, or Ibiza with his literary acquaintances for months at a time. Here, he conducted affairs both physical and intellectual.
It was in 1924, during a reprieve from his family on Capri, that Benjamin began to collect material for what he believed would be a short essay about nineteenth-century Paris, and about the glass-covered open-air markets that for a brief period enchanted that city. In his study of the German Trauerspiel, he had written that “in the ruins of great buildings the idea of the plan speaks more impressively than in lesser buildings, however well preserved they are.” So he intended to focus this essay on history’s recent ruins—the Parisian arcades—to find in them latent ideas that were obscured or imprisoned by the present. This essay would become his unfinished masterpiece, the Passagen-Werk or Arcades Project, which he later described as “the theater of all my struggles and all my ideas.”
Over the next sixteen years, the Arcades Project telescoped into an expansive work about capitalism, European history, and the forces of urban life. Eiland and Jennings call it “the most gripping account of modernity to be produced in the twentieth century.” This may be true, but it is not what strikes me as most immediate about the book. On the one hand, reading The Arcades Project even in its unfinished form is a dizzying, almost supernatural, experience. It contains such wide-ranging erudition and far-flung associations that it seems to take up more space than the book’s physical dimensions should allow. On the other hand, the experience of any individual page is one of simple, even childlike, pleasure. Compared to his finished essays, this is not difficult reading. You learn facts about the streets of Paris, about antiquated fashions, iron construction, and Europe’s early, marvelous “world exhibitions.” You learn, for instance, that in Haussmann’s Paris “the widening of the streets, it was said, was necessitated by the crinoline” of ladies’ dresses. In the delight Benjamin takes in anecdote and trivia, the book reminds me of other obsessive encyclopedic works, like Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholia, even as I am also reminded of the freedom from linear logic or progression to be found in children’s books and movies, and in particular a famous short film my mother showed me several times when I was very young, The Red Balloon. ((Recently, I re-watched Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 classic and was pleased to discover that my memory was accurate: the film features a surprising preponderance of Benjamin obsessions. To begin with, it is a children’s film, and so straight off combines two of his long-standing interests: children’s books and the techniques of filmmaking. Second, it is a peripatetic adventure in Paris, like the Arcades Project, and even combines in one person two figures central to that work, and to Benjamin’s career: the flâneur and the child. The film’s plot, a fantasy about a boy traipsing through Ménilmontant with his friend, a mute balloon with a mind of its own, doubles as a panorama of postwar Paris (“panoramas,” check) with its alleyways (check), ruins (check) and charming storefronts (check). It is even, in its own quiet way, a film about Christian sacrifice and transcendentalism, and about the resilience of the Parisian routine in the decade after Occupation. I doubt that I am the first to notice that The Red Balloon, though it is “merely” a children’s film, enacts the full Dionysian spirit of Benjamin’s work better than almost any single work since his death, better even that Tarkovsky’s ruin-filled landscapes, although Google turns up squat.)) (She claimed I looked like the film’s tow-headed protagonist.)
If I seem to be increasingly privileging my own experiences of Benjamin’s work rather than a summary of his thoughts and of this latest biography’s adequacy, this is because I’m finding that quoting from Benjamin’s essays, or from his life story, does not really suit my purposes or explain much; when Eiland and Jennings expound on the Arcades Project or Berlin Childhood, they have the advantage not only of decades of scholarship and translation work, but of their book’s imposing length. The modest reviewer may find himself struck by the inadequacy of summarization. He may therefore turn to other strategies.
“A remembered event is infinite, because it is merely a key to everything that happened before it and after it.” A childhood’s winter trip to San Diego in the early 1990s brought me in touch with the remembered event that may be the key to my relationship with Benjamin. At the same time, the trip also introduced me to the aura of a word. The event took place in the home of my mother’s parents, assimilated Jews from eastern Europe, and with even greater specificity, on my grandfather’s bookshelf, where as a child of seven or eight I saw the word in question sideways and descending vertically between others in a row. Since that moment, I have sometimes found myself waiting in line at a bank or gas station, watching a closed-circuit security camera feed on a small, ceiling-mounted television set, and I have experienced the plummeting vertigo in the protracted instant where I realize the identity of the figure I have for several seconds been idly following on the screen. In San Diego, it was the startling fact of that name—my name—announcing itself from the spine of the book, a name I had already passed over several times without its meaning anything to me. Looking at the bookshelf, at the spine nestled between Arendt and Buber, I experienced the retroactivity of all recognition; I had always already seen it. The act of seeing my name was only the last in a long, perhaps infinite chain of my awareness of it. I was even approximately aware of the correct German pronunciation, with the soft, palatal approximant ja—Ben-ya-min—because an adult at synagogue had a few weeks before the trip to San Diego explained to me that my name in Hebrew was not Ben-juh-min, but Ben-cha-min. My Hebrew name, I was told, was my true, inner name, the name by which God knew me. ((This fact was for months afterwards a source of confusion and, occasionally, panic. Why should I have two names? Was one a false (or else evil) name? It wasn’t long before I started demanding that my parents call me Ben, the pronunciation of which was unambiguous, and the nickname stuck. Some day I should like to confront that oracle of knowledge from my youth—one of the synagogue mothers, I seem to recall—in order to reprimand her. A child shouldn’t be made to question his own name; mothers should know this above all.)) Because of this knowledge I felt a private affinity with Benjamin long before I would learn anything else about him, much less read any of his work. What I knew already as a child of seven or eight in San Diego was that we both suffered from the shame of our false names: a name with a hole in its middle, like a bird’s nest tucked between the two branches of ben and min. Even when I was somewhat older, lying awake at night, I would hope—or else sense, with the inchoate dreaminess of all remembered childhood thoughts—that within the pocket, within the hiccup of my name was hiding another, secret name, adumbrated by that improbable, cryptic, and significant j.
In addition to its surplus of personal anecdotes—some trivial, others amusing, a few pitiful or heartbreaking—“A Critical Life” delivers as clear an account as we are likely to have of Benjamin’s bizarre suicide on the French-Spanish border, which owed as much to historical accident as to any personal despair. The book’s final hundred pages make for “gripping” reading indeed, as Benjamin races against world-political catastrophe to secure the safety of his manuscripts and, as a distant afterthought, himself.
For almost the last eight years of his life, Benjamin lived, like many Berlin intellectuals, in exile from Hitler’s Germany. (Berlin Childhood opened with a prophetic line: “In 1932, when I was abroad, it began to be clear to me that I would soon have to bid a long, perhaps lasting farewell to the city of my birth.”) He spent the years between 1932 and 1940 variously in San Remo, where his ex-wife Dora ran a pension; in Skovsbostrand, with Brecht and his circle; and, mostly, in Paris, where he moved from sublet to sublet and spent many days in the Bibliothèque National, where he was working on both the Arcades Project and a related book on Baudelaire. This second project (most of which never materialized) was a source of tension between Benjamin and both Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who by 1938 had moved their Institute for Social Research to New York, and who hoped—with some reservations, especially from Horkheimer—to find resources there for Benjamin, as well.
On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and Benjamin fled Paris. His fear—that he, an aging, ill, Jewish refugee, would be conscripted into the French army—demonstrates the degree to which his intuitions often failed him in matters practical and political. Instead, he was sent to an internment camp in Nevres. Bouts of marching and strenuous train travel exacerbated his chronically poor health. Through his detainment, Benjamin’s thoughts were turned to the fate of his study of Baudelaire, which had been through several drafts of contentious edits with Adorno.
By November, Benjamin was back in Paris, the city where he felt most at home and the only place where his two works-in-progress could possibly be completed. So he delayed his final departure as long as possible, though he was in increasing danger. Germany had declared all German Jews stateless, and so the possibility of escape to another country was increasingly uncertain. (He was but one stateless refugee among tens of thousands in France.) In February 1940, he finally applied to the American consulate for a visa and began to take English lessons with Hannah Arendt. He also began work on his last major piece of writing, “On the Concept of History,” which opens with the famous scenario of the chess-playing automaton controlled by a small puppeteer—an image Benjamin treated as allegory for the relationship between dialectical materialism and theology.
He finished the essay in April or May. By this time his health had further deteriorated, as had the détente between Nazi Germany and France. Benjamin left Paris in June, heading south on one of the last refugee trains to leave the city. (He left behind many of his papers with his friend Georges Bataille, who entrusted them to two librarians at the Bibliothèque National. Some of these were not rediscovered until 1981, by, of all people, the philosopher Giorgio Agamben.) Eyewitnesses from this period recalled that Benjamin looked more like a sickly old man than a forty-eight-year old; among his possessions on leaving Paris was a recent X-Ray from a doctor’s visit in which he had received a diagnosis of “tachycardia, hypertension, and an enlarged heart.” He continued to travel south over the next several months as his health and finances permitted. In September, he set out from Marseilles with two German-born acquaintances who shared his hopes of crossing the Spanish border. They met a woman also traveling sans nationalité, and the foursome set out for Spain. Here begin the murky final days that have been so thoroughly dissected in Benjamin literature, and which are given especial attention in “A Critical Life.” We know he walked across the Pyrenees, though he was so weak that at one point he was forced to sleep in a clearing rather than retreat with his companions to a nearby inn. At another stage, his companions had to literally drag him up a steep vineyard that he could not mount himself. At last, they reached the fishing village of Port Bau, where for some inexplicable reason—it will probably never be known—the guards rejected their legitimate travel permits and told them that the Spanish border was closed. The refugees would be returned to French soil the next day, and Benjamin knew he would be transferred to a concentration camp. Later, in a hotel, he announced to one of his companions that he would not return to France; at some point during the night in Port Bau, he wrote a hasty letter to Adorno, took a lethal dose of the morphine he had been carrying since Marseilles, and, over the next few hours, died. A minor uproar spread among the town’ residents that morning (possibly related to the fact that Benjamin was carrying an entry visa for the United States). Whatever the reason, the border “reopened” the next day, and all of Benjamin’s traveling companions escaped to Spain.
It would be reductive to point out the obvious: that in death, Benjamin became myth, that his suicide had all the qualities of allegory he’d pursued throughout his career. It is less simple to qualify just how his death has colored his legacy. Adorno summarized a common sentiment when he wrote that Benjamin “viewed the world from the perspective of the dead.” But would this assessment feel accurate if Benjamin had escaped Europe to join his friend in New York?
Wartime deaths have a way of transforming into farce. Benjamin’s is no different, and the farce of his burial could not be more appropriate. Eiland and Jennings report that the municipal death certificate not only misidentified his cause of death as cerebral hemorrhage, rather than suicide (in accordance with his wishes), but it also mysteriously identified the writer as “Dr. Benjamin Walter,” who, with his obviously German (and not Jewish) surname, could be buried in the Catholic cemetery. Though his body was subsequently moved and thereafter lost, his belongings turned up decades later, still under the name Benjamin Walter. These included a pipe, some photographs, a pair of glasses, and a chest X-Ray.
“Not Plato but Adam,” Benjamin wrote, “was the father of philosophy”—Adam, the giver of names, whose partner was not found among all the beasts and birds made for him. I am reminded of a line by Benjamin’s contemporary in exile, Joseph Roth, whose book The Wandering Jews tried to reconcile the fate of the nomadic Jew in Europe with the sudden and apparently unstoppable rise of fascism in the 1930s. Toward the end of this short book, Roth, who died in 1939, managed to strike a note of Talmudic equanimity. The Jews’ situation was bad, yes, and would no doubt get even worse, but their plight was universal, and therefore simply human: “Lest we forget that nothing in this world endures, not even a home; and that our life is short, shorter even than the life of the elephant, the crocodile, and the crow. Even parrots outlive us.”
In his work and life, Benjamin pursued all that history’s victors had vanquished—myths and ruins—even as he worked to overcome the mystical connotations clinging to these topics. Any apparent contradictions in his efforts are also our own; his corpus is a messy synthesis of our modern way of seeing, which wears a disguise of materialism over a theological body. As in our originary myths, we are still choosing the names of the beasts around us and only slowly discovering what these names signify.
Eiland and Jennings dodge the risk I’ve taken of making such overt arguments related to a secondhand summary of Benjamin’s oeuvre. (They are also doggedly impersonal, of course, in keeping with the nature of their project.) In certain moments, though, they privilege the importance of naming within Benjamin’s philosophy. This occurs mostly through their selection of excerpts, especially when these come from his lesser-known works and seem to perform no biographical duties. Nowhere is this slant (which I don’t think I’ve imagined) more visible than in the moment, quoted in full in the biography, where the narrator of Benjamin’s little Ibiza tale “In the Sun” discovers the world emerging from behind a vast, self-containing codex of names:
There are, so it is said, seventeen kinds of figs on the island. One ought—the man told himself as he walked in the sun—to know their names. Indeed, not only ought one to have seen the grasses and the animals that give the island its face, its sound, and its scent; not only ought one to have seen the strata of the mountains and the different kinds of soil, which vary from a dusty yellow to a violet brown, with broad splashes of vermillion in between; above all, one ought to know their names. Isn’t every region governed by a unique confluence of plants and animals, and isn’t every local name a cipher behind which flora and fauna meet for the first and last time?
Criticism in its purest form: not evaluation but naming, which simultaneously encodes and obscures the world. It may be that all critics name, but only for the most influential among them does naming becomes a kind of onomasty—everything you name comes to be named after yourself. Eiland and Jennings do not prescribe as much in their lucid and profoundly affecting biography, but it is hard not to see Benjamin’s taxonomy everywhere today. ((Throughout this essay, I have loosely conflated critical taxonomy—the classification of concepts, art, ideas, cultural habits—with the more generic act of naming. I have done so because taxonomy, in the sense that Benjamin was a taxonomist, is at bottom nothing more or less than a second-order act of naming. It is the classification of names, which are themselves the simplest classifiers. To put it plainly, critical taxonomy is the naming of the naming of names.)) Even as writers like Kafka and Proust were learning how to describe them, Benjamin was putting conceptual names to the features of the new modernity in which we live: putting names to mass media, to the return of myth in the cloak of Enlightenment values, to the return of dialectical materialism, to the rebirth of war, disaster, and ruin.
The tealeaves were everywhere he looked, but they cast backward, into the past. (In “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” he wryly described the religious limitations of his critical projects: “the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however.”) Benjamin could see centuries of ruin in a line of Goethe’s, in a Parisian arcade, a city square, a crinoline dress, his childhood socks, a discarded mannequin, or a dinner alone in Marseilles. It is not clear that he liked what he saw. In his letters and essays, there are occasional moments of not just personal but critical despair, wherein the writer must have witnessed the anti-telos latent in his own philosophy, an eternal return of ruin and more ruin. One such moment occurs in the middle of his preternaturally prescient 1929 essay, “Surrealism,” which in its political defeatism anticipates (unintentionally, for the most part) the worst horrors of the Holocaust. The author resigns himself to “pessimism all along the line. Absolutely. Mistrust in the fate of literature, mistrust in the fate of freedom, mistrust in the fate of European humanity, but three times mistrust in all reconciliation: between classes, between nations, between individuals. And unlimited trust only in I.G. Farben and the peaceful perfecting of the air force. But what now, what next?”
In recent weeks, the posturing of sovereign states and their bloviating leaders has reminded us that historical progress is no certainty; Benjamin distrusted the very notion, and here we are again, a century after modernity’s difficult birth, watching CNN and Twitter, and wondering: What now? What next?
Elsewhere in his work, things are not so dire. So I will end by repeating, this time in full, the closing lines of “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” which are among Benjamin’s last and also his most lovely, and which bear revisiting whenever the news of the world is dark, as the news was, almost inconceivably so, in the year of his death:
We know that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however. This stripped the future of its magic, to which all those succumb who turn to the soothsayers for enlightenment. This does not imply, however, that for the Jews the future turned into homogenous, empty time. For every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.